Stefi materialized like a sea sprite during our first breakfast at the Dubrovnik estate overlooking placid turquoise Adriatic waters. In an uncharacteristically impulsive act, I had purchased four nights for four people in this Croatian paradise at a charity auction. And here we were, absorbing the wonders of this gorgeous place, complete with Nada the amazing chef, a driver—and Stefi.
Until that moment, the four of us–my husband Alex and me and our friends Eileen and Bill–had been giving our full attention to Nada’s spread. There were succulent strawberries, salacious green figs, and juicy peaches that really tasted like the pure, unadulterated produce Croatians speak proudly of maintaining, local yogurts and cheeses, healthy whole grain cereal, and freshly baked sesame bread served with bottomless cups of steaming strong coffee.
Stefi’s appearance roused us from our breakfast bliss.
She skimmed across the garden patio in child-sized yellow Crocs, and planted herself between our table and the kitchen. With a cheery, “Good morning!” she began to weave a captivating narrative.
Unlike the lovely but reserved Nada (whom we later learned from Stefi had once been the national women’s judo champion—appearances can be deceiving), Stefi bubbled. Her full name is Stefica, but the diminutive fits her perfectly. She described herself as “a tiny person” in comparison to typical tall Croatians, suggesting her shortness was one reason why despite her master’s degree in marketing and economics, at age 31 she was still unable to find professional work.
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“So I’m mopping floors,” she allowed, with more irony than bitterness. “But,” she quickly continued, “I’m lucky to have this job to support myself. And bit by bit, day by day, I am going forward. You have to be patient and not become discouraged.”
Who could not love this energetic miniature woman in her Disney themed t-shirt? We peppered her with questions: Where did you learn your English? (in school) Are you married? (No) What job would you like to have? (anything where I could use my marketing skills) Have you tried approaching online marketing services? (I just yesterday applied to Elance! How amazing that you ask me that question today!)
Typical Americans, we began to solve her problems, whether she wanted our help or not. She responded to each word of advice with delight, as though it was a sparkling gem she had never before imagined.
And yet: there was always a “yet.” A reason she could name that made her success unlikely.
Like many of the Croatians we’d met during the first three days of our visit before coming to the villa, Stefi expressed a constricted view of life’s potential.
The country’s long history of avoiding subjugation by paying tributes to stronger forces had been recounted to us by tour guides and books.
But fresher wounds of war stem from the 1990’s Croatian War of Independence that formed the country’s present borders. This personal experience of terror and deprivation remains raw, defining many Croatians’ worldview. It scars most adults’ memories, just as its physical scars remain visible in buildings pock marked or reduced to rubble.
Stefi described her wartime hunger in painful detail, speculating that lack of food during a crucial developmental period had stunted her growth.
“We had nothing to eat but crackers,” she told us.
Crackers came to symbolize the trauma of war. Years later, she recounted, when the villa owner served her a cracker and cheese appetizer. “I saw the crackers and couldn’t breathe,” she said, fanning her face with her hands as if to ward off a fainting spell.
And there was the conundrum. Could she break out of her traumatic victimhood to achieve her stated life goals? Could she change the paradigm of her life view? Was she wishing for a fairy godmother to transform her struggles with the wave if a wand? Or, having been defined by wartime’s limitations, was she now more comfortable staying put within her own real or perceived barriers?
Could she face down those crackers and move on?
During our short stay at the villa, we became like old friends. Stefi continued to talk with us about many things, while seamlessly making our beds, helping Nada cook and serve, and offering advice on hikes around the area.
But I realized, on the last day when I encouraged her to start a blog in order to build her profile with prospective employers and she quietly replied “Oh, good idea,” with furrowed brow, that she probably would not take action on any of our suggestions.
And I wondered, how often do we all limit ourselves by staying within our mental boundaries because breaking out seems even more painful?
When does the risk of changing what has become our “normal” in life keep us set in psychic stone even when our behavior pattern no longer serves us? How can we become aware when we are so shaped by past struggles that we fail to see today’s opportunity staring us in the face?
What “cracker memories” are holding you back?
GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”
As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.